What He Loved: On Bill Berkson and Lev Ozerov
The evening before poet and art critic Bill Berkson (1939–2016) unexpectedly passed away he had been doing what he loved to do, what he had built his life around doing: celebrating with poet and artist friends. The occasion for this event, which was held at the 500 Club in the Mission, was the publication of 500 Capp Street, curator Constance Lewallen’s book on artist David Ireland. Lewallen, of course, was also married to Berkson, who thoroughly relished the repartee found in relationships built around shared artistic affinity; throughout his life he thrived on being around artists and writers of all ages, feeding off their energy and always returning it in kind. Berkson’s Since When: A Memoir in Pieces (Coffee House Press, 2018) presents a robust assemblage of autobiographical writings, many of which reflect on a range of individual artistic relationships and poetry/art social scenes in which he took part, from Manhattan to Bolinas and San Francisco. Among the last of Berkson’s writing projects, the posthumously published book serves as a vivid testament to the enduring indispensability of relationships between artists.
Poet and literary critic Lev Ozerov (1914–1996) was a generation or so older than Berkson. As a Jew who lived through the rise and fall of Soviet Russia, he experienced a near polar-opposite situation vis-a-vis artists and society. Reading his last book, Portraits Without Frames (NYRB Classics, 2018), alongside Berkson’s book, however, the juxtaposition of these two lives achieves a balance: Ozerov’s “mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture,” as Boris Dralyuk refers to it in his introduction, captures the same spirited essence of relationships between artists so central to Berkson’s life. Ozerov’s fifty poem-portraits cover a vast range of figures from prominent Soviet authors to little-known Yiddish and Ukrainian poets, along with a number of visual artists and figures in the performing arts. Like Berkson’s memoir, Ozerov builds his poems around his personal interactions with each of his subjects, immersing even the most unfamiliar of readers in the Soviet arts world.
Of course, the undeniably dark malevolence ubiquitously strung throughout Ozerov’s poems couldn’t be further from Berkson’s experience. Soviet Russia was not a friendly environment in which to pursue one’s art. In “Dovid Hofshteyn,” Ozerov writes, “It is madness to be a poet, / and still more, to be a poet / belonging to what is hardly the happiest nation on earth.” Three of the four “Yiddish Poets” Ozerov pays tribute to were “executed on August 12, 1952, the Night of the Murdered Poets,” accused of nefarious treason, but ostensibly killed for their previous anti-fascist politics. Ozerov relates an exchange between poet Peretz Markish’s widow and a General Borisoglebsky, the “head of the Commission for the Rehabilitation of the Illegally Repressed” (the official terminology for recognizing regrettable executions):
General Borisoglebsky addresses her:
“You can probably guess
why I’ve called you here.”
“No. Tell me.” “I am now able
to inform you that your husband
has been rehabilitated.”
“Where is he?” The general’s reply
is ready and waiting, planned
and polished: “He was executed
by enemies of the people.” (“Peretz Markish”)
She is then refused her husband’s case file and informed that he has no grave. A short while later the KGB contacts her over financial reimbursement for Markish’s gold teeth, which presumably had been pulled and melted down at the time of his execution; no need to let valuable material go to waste. Such memories are par for the course, heavy reminders of what remembrance entailed for the Soviet artist. As he writes in “Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin,” speaking in the voice of the composer and esteemed musical teacher “whose piano trio, op. 63, ‘In Memory of Our Perished Children’ (1943), is the earliest of Soviet music commemorating the Shoah”: “But it’s impossible / not to remember. Not to remember / hurts. To remember / hurts still more.”
Yet there are also the earlier years of the Soviet era during which Ozerov recalls his literary youth spent palling around, reading books with friends and sharing in the common delight found in the language of poetry:
We would stroll through Sokolniki Park,
reciting poems to each other
and talking of Khlebnikov and Bagritsky,
of Babel and Zenkevich.
Yes, we were brothers in poetry. (“Semyon Petrovich Gudzenko”)
Berkson similarly recounts painter Joan Mitchell’s memory of him joining her and poet Frank O’Hara in a spontaneous reading at his home: “Joan vividly recalled a time, still hard to get to in my memory, of sitting on the floor of my mother’s Fifth avenue apartment with Frank and me, the three of us reading poems aloud to each other.”
Between these books, a café in San Francisco feels like it could just as well be one in Moscow. Two generations of artists passing back and forth stories that encourage and drive future work. Poets, much like everybody else, require assurances that only being around like company provides.
Everyone on earth —
shepherd or prime minister, stoker or poet —
wants to hear
they have been waiting
to hear all their lives.
As they grow older, people want to know
that their life
has not been in vain. (“Anna Akhmatova”)
Berkson came of age in another sort of company, learning to move at ease in the upscale social world of Manhattan. After his father’s death on January 4, 1959, the nineteen-year-old sophomore at Brown “returned — was summoned, is how it felt” back to New York and began escorting his mother out to social affairs. Celebrities such as Judy Garland (“Judy drank Blue Nun liebfraumilch poured from the tall, thin bottle she had brought in a black tote bag.”) were familiar family friends. Perhaps these experiences accounted for Berkson’s understated classy charm, a personable friendliness that was yet somewhat ruggedly astute.
By 1970, after having traveled abroad in Europe, he felt it was time to leave New York (“My voices always tell me when it’s time to move, and where”). With his mother’s perceptively encouraging words, “I think it would be good for your work,” he came west, landing north of San Francisco. “A pretty village bounded by Mount Tamalpais on one side, a lagoon on another, and the ocean on a third, Bolinas figures existentially a few miles beyond Brigadoon along the road to Arcadia.”
Ted Berrigan had diagnosed the inner rumblings that drove Berkson westward as “pronoun trouble” — an enigmatic diagnosis — and also characteristically, (un)helpfully asked the needling question, “What are you going to do out there, raise chickens?” Berkson himself had no idea. Yet the geographical change triggered personal adjustments in realms both physical and mental, with the company and support of poets remaining constant:
After a few months of drawing complete blanks as to what to say or do, confronted, as I felt I was, by the large question of what space exactly I intended to fill or delineate, I sat with Joanne Kyger, who, recognizing my thoroughgoing displacement, said simply, “You don’t want to be looney.” […] I decided to go with what I had.
One big thing Berkson had going for him was an innate sense for social etiquette — an essential skill in navigating the diverse artistic relationships he, like Ozerov, enjoyed taking part in. It’s summed up in an astute perception of Berkson’s regarding poet and dance critic Edwin Denby: “Another side of Edwin in action (overheard): sensing an impasse in conversation with a younger writer, he said firmly, ‘I see that now we are beginning to embarrass each other,’ and turned his attention elsewhere.” This is deft maneuvering Berkson obviously appreciated and understood how to implement. I recall an exchange with him at the reception for a 2011 show of art works by George Schneeman at the Italian Cultural Institute , where he passed over my awkward introduction of my partner with what felt to me in the moment as a brusque cut-off but was in retrospect neither overly harsh nor kind; it was simply efficient.
In the Bay Area, Berkson became a kind of cultural ambassador. Throughout the 1970s he published the Big Sky magazine and book series, a pivotal resource for poets and artists alike. In the 1980s, he started teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, and through his endeavors brought an abundance of guests into town for readings and other events. He connected fluidly across generations of poets and artists, feeding his appetite for conversation while sparking creative energy into action. This continued after his departure from teaching, even as he fought off ill health; finally, in 2004 a lung transplant granted him reprieve from years of wrestling with the results of a lifetime of smoking. I remember him reading at Adobe Books on 16th Street just prior to the surgery; pulling down his oxygen tubes, gasping for breath, he nonetheless delivered the lines powerfully and with astonishing full vigor. Insisting the poem be presented unencumbered by any interfering wheeze from the oxygen tank he was forced to carry everywhere. In 2010, he instigated a “What About Auden” evening at Books and Bookshelves near Duboce Park and the Castro, urging younger poets to take part in an evening of reflection upon the formalist lineage he saw slipping by them unawares. His presence was endlessly stimulating. Its effects continue to be felt to this day.
Ozerov and Berkson share the luck to have passed through social circles where friendship and art aligned, and the intimacy of their personal experience with such wide-ranging artist figures illuminates their writing. Take Ozerov’s witnessing from a distance the actress Alisa Koonen and her husband, the director Aleksandr Tairov, encountering each other on the street:
I cannot tear my eyes away.
Yes, this really happened —
before my eyes.
There they go — quite real — a couple,
there they go — half real — a vision,
off they go — unreal — a dream. (“Alisa Koonen”)
Berkson visited Saint Petersburg in 2006. In his published notebook of the trip, Invisible Oligarchs (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), he describes the scene on the streets: “Social services broken down. Pensions lost. Old ladies without pensions make living as museum guards. Old folks stand on sidewalks of major thoroughfares singing the Internationale, raising Stalin banners high.” Throughout Ozerov’s poems there is the sense of the seemingly inevitable aftermath of the political and social world he manages to operate within. He captures what Berkson describes in his preface to Oligarchs as “the elusive element once known as ‘the Great Russian soul,’” while also elucidating the doomed struggle of a system that generally refused to regard its artists as anything other than cogs in a propaganda machine.
Against this overwhelming force Ozerov pursued the artistic life as far as possible, positioning himself as a hub round which ongoing Soviet artistic affairs churned, at the risk of putting himself in peril with the authorities. Berkson meanwhile made his way with what life offered up, catching opportunities as they arose: “Never having anticipated anything, I am always astonished when anyone has a plan.” He was a rare kind: an adroit bohemian connoisseur who taught himself how to write about it all pretty damn well. Comparable self-awareness propels Ozerov’s work, albeit in a far more deliberate manner. There is no doubting that “a plan” was always lurking beneath the surface of his actions. Only a wily strategist could have survived the unpredictably hazardous times as he did.
Both Ozerov and Berkson capture the brilliance of the everyday life of extraordinary figures. As Berkson describes the daily routine of painter Willem DeKooning, who in his final years was suffering from Alzheimer’s: “I just paint all day long, and then at night I watch television and I keep a pad on my knees and draw while I watch.” The artist completely immersed in his work, or rather, as Berkson terrifically describes it: “Sublimely out of it, the greatest living painter was all he was.”
Disappearing into the work, the life. Berkson and Ozerov speak to the same joy found in being there, amid life’s passage, connecting artist-to-artist. Whether under the yoke of Soviet totalitarianism or amid the dazzling heights of bourgeois capitalist hedonism, artists at work seek out whatever connections they require — ever making a go of being at it.